Narrator: Michael Berkowitz
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Videographer: William Tishler
Date: 7 November 2018
Transcribed: Teresa Bergen, Matthew Greene, Skye Doney
Editing: Kyle Jenkins, Greg Konop
Length: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Michael Berkowitz biography:
Michael Berkowitz was born in Rochester, NY (1959), and received his BA, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Hobart College (Geneva, NY, 1981). His father, William (1917-1995), was a metal fabricator at Eastman Kodak Company who had served in the Pacific, in the U.S. Army, during the Second World War. His mother, Gloria (Goldi Goldstein, 1929-2017), grew up on a Kosher dairy farm in Penfield, NY. She was a hairdresser who had her own shop in Ontario Center, NY, and a chair at B. Foreman’s department store salon in downtown Rochester. She later sold women’s hats and gloves at a suburban Foreman’s. Both Michael’s parents were very close to George L. Mosse, as was his sister, Edith Needleman (1958-2018).
During Michael’s time in Madison (1981-1988), he had the benefit of knowing and working with a Mosse student, Joel Truman, who went on to a distinguished career in health administration in Wisconsin and New York. Michael regards himself as extremely fortunate to have known many of the Mosse students who preceded him, such as Judy Doneson (1946-2002) and Steve Aschheim in Jerusalem; his teacher and friend, Sterling Fishman (1932-1997); Laurie Baron, and Andy Rabinbach (among others). Michael’s undergraduate students, when he was a teaching assistant for Professor Mosse, included Andrew Patner (1960-2015) and Andy Bachman, who became trusted friends and colleagues. Patner was a leading Chicago journalist and radio host, and Rabbi Andy Bachman is a major figure in the American Jewish and progressive community. In addition to teaching for George L. Mosse, Michael was an assistant to Professors Robert Koehl (1922-2015), Theodore Hamerow (1920-2013), and Domenico Sella (1926-2012). All of these teachers and scholars, along with Gerda Lerner (1920-2013), Elaine Marks (1930-2001), Klaus Berghahn (1937-2019), Edward Gargan (1922-1995), Ken Sacks, James Steakley, Dan Pekarsky, Diane Lindstrom (1944-2018), Jan Vansina (1929-2017), and Paul Boyer (1935-2012) were influential in his outlook.
Berkowitz was appointed as a Reader (associate professor) in modern Jewish history in 1997, and (full) professor (2001), in the Department of Hebrew & Jewish Studies at University College London (UCL). Previously he held a postdoctoral fellowship and taught at the University of Judaism (Los Angeles, 1988-9), then the West Coast branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Afterwards he taught at Ohio State University (1990-7) and briefly at the University of Chicago (1997). He is author of Jews and Photography in Britain (University of Texas Press, 2015), and since 2012, editor of Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England (UCL Press). His publications include The Crime of My Very Existence: Nazism and the Myth of Jewish Criminality (University of California Press, 2007), The Jewish Self-Image (Reaktion and NYU Press, 2000), Western Jewry and the Zionist Project, 1914-1933 (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and Zionist Culture and West European Jewry before the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 1993). Among his edited books are “We Are Here”: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany, co-edited with Avinoam J. Patt (Wayne State University Press, 2010). He wrote the introduction and afterword to The Fatherland and the Jews (Granta, 2021), two works by Alfred Wiener which were critical in George L. Mosse’s early investigation of völkisch nationalism.
Berkowitz is preparing a book, Washington’s (nearly) secret Hollywood connection, for the University of Pennsylvania Press about American Jews and movie-making during the Second World War. He has held fellowships in the last few years at the Remarque Institute of New York University (2017), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC, 2016), and Yad Vashem (Jerusalem, 2016). In 2007-8 he was President of the British Association of Jewish Studies, and he is a founding convenor of the Jewish history seminar of the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Michael lives in North London with his wife, Deborah. They have two children, Rachel and Stephen.
Tortorice: Okay. So it’s November 7, 2018 and we are here in Madison at the University of Wisconsin to interview Professor Michael Berkowitz, who is a Professor of Modern Jewish history in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London. Welcome, Michael.
Berkowitz: Thank you very much.
Tortorice: Well, I guess we will start at the beginning. Where were you born?
Berkowitz: I was born in Rochester, New York in Highland Hospital, August 25, 1959.
Tortorice: And what kind of milieu were you born into? Were you? Did your family have a strong Jewish connection? What was their trajectory in the U.S.?
Berkowitz: Well, my, my family history, which George actually found quite interesting, and he actually came to know my family very well, so I think in some ways this is perhaps more relevant than than it might otherwise be, is I come from a working-class family. That is, my father was a metal fabricator at Eastman Kodak Company, where he worked beginning immediately after the Second World War. Due to family circumstances, he wasn’t able to take advantage of the GI Bill. He had to support other family members. So he never went to college even though he was a very smart man and did very well in high school, but he never, never had a chance to pursue his own education. Also, Kodak did not support him at the time in pursuing, in pursuing further education.
So my father was born in Rochester in 1917. He was slightly older than George. He was born December 12, 1917. And my mother was 12 years older. She was born April 4, 1929, right in the midst of depression time. I mean, not quite not quite depression yet. But she was born in Penfield, New York, which was then a village outside of Rochester. And he was, he found that interesting as well, that my mother was born on a dairy farm, actually a kosher dairy farm in upstate New York.
And my mother, also I think very smart, very funny.
She didn’t graduate from high school. She also worked, you know, she had to work to support other family members. And she became a hairdresser, in some ways, quite successful as a hairdresser. Which again, George found this absolutely, found this absolutely fascinating that she had had her own business very early on.
So again, my family was in some ways quite unusual and he thought it was interesting that I didn’t come from a normal sort of Jewish, suburban, middle-class background. And he asked me endless questions about about my family, you know, at at different times, you know, when I first, when I first had an extensive conversation with him before I began my graduate work in November of, in November of 1980. And this just continued and he was absolutely fascinated to hear about my mother growing up on a dairy farm, and he asked me other questions about our family. And I said that there were some family members who were not quite on the right side of the law. That my mother had a cousin who had a furniture store in Buffalo that was known to spontaneously combust when they needed insurance money. And that there were other family members who were active during Prohibition.
And at that point, he almost jumped out of his chair, this was when he had an office in what’s now the Mosse Humanities building, he almost jumped out and he said, You must read, do you know Jews without Money? And I said no, I hadn’t yet heard of it. He said, you must read Michael Gold, Jews without Money. It’s all about your family. Well, of course it wasn’t really all about my family, you know my family wasn’t from New York, but he was so fascinated by this idea that I knew of these not quite lawful connections in it, particularly my mother’s family. I’ve got to say my father, oh, they would never do it. They would never do the wrong thing. But he found my mother’s family absolutely hysterically funny. And I’ll say some other things about the relationship between my parents and my sister and George.
But to jump a little bit further ahead, you know, he came to my graduation. I went through graduation exercises in, in 1989 and he made it very clear to me that it was only the second time that he ever did it. The only other time he did it was with a student of his who was blind. You know, and he thought this was quite important that he go through commencement exercises with him. I think it was Norman. Is it Norman Coombs (PhD, 1961)? Actually one of his PhD students who taught interestingly, at Rochester Institute, Institute of Technology, who was one of the early historians to offer a course on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
So okay. So he went through graduation ceremonies with him and then he said that he would go through the ceremonies with me because he so liked my parents, my family, and respected my family.
And he says because your mother and father are such lovely people that I will, I will do this otherwise, he said I’m completely against it. I don’t like this kind of thing. And it turned out to be an absolutely, an absolutely wonderful experience. But he really wanted to hear details about what my father did as a metal fabricator and spot welder. And I said, you know, he’d been involved in the expansion of Eastman Kodak. But after the war,
Tortorice: But you know Michael that is, that tells so much about George’s character…
Tortorice: …because he was endlessly curious.
Tortorice: And, you know, one idea was we would entitle his memoir, “Curious George.”
Tortorice: The other thing was that great level of empathy that he had for what he would consider the lives of the average American, especially if they had unique aspects.
Tortorice: Yeah, so I think he really was very interested.
Berkowitz: He was, he was he was true, he was truly interested to hear what they did. And then yeah, he asked me about what my mother did and I said she gave up being a hairdresser, but then she went back as a saleswoman in a department store and he was very interested in that as well to hear about sort of the character of the store and the kinds of things that my, that my mother did, so he was fascinated and also he was fascinated that I’d had a more or less Orthodox Jewish upbringing. But I wasn’t so keen on Orthodoxy by that point.
Tortorice: By “Orthodox,” do you mean religious Orthodox?
Berkowitz: Yes, religious. That is, I went to an Orthodox Hebrew school and had an Orthodox bar mitzvah. And although I didn’t consider myself particularly religiously observant, I was still sort of quasi-Kosher. That is, by the time I started graduate school, I don’t think I’d ever eaten pork or shellfish. And he found this very amusing. You know, that there were these aspects of my personal habits that he regarded as very Jewish. So that was, like I said, this was part of what we talked about, part of what we talked about rather extensively.
And I should also say, jumping ahead a little bit that my father came more often than my mother did sometimes to go to football games with me and he would always visit George if he was here, we would go to the house. And I can tell one story which maybe doesn’t sound so good these days, but I’ll, I’ll tell it anyway. That is, you know, the situation in the house, there was the bathroom on, you know, on the same floor with the, with the living room. So obviously people, people go to the bathroom and George had reading material in his bathroom. And at that time, he had a pile of Der Spiegel and he also had a pile of Harvard Magazine.
So and I think I might have told you this story before, but okay, so I’m, you know, we’re revisiting with George and you think, what, what is a guy who was a university professor have to talk about with someone who is a factory worker. They always had more than enough to talk about. It, it was wonderful. Okay. So one of the times my father was visiting, he comes out of the bathroom and he said, Wow, He said, I, I was reading the, the Harvard Magazine. And he says, you know, looking at the ads in the back at that time, this is before the internet. And there were these sort of Lonely Hearts ads in the Harvard Magazine. And my father looked at George, said, “I never knew that there were so many high class,” he said, “Jew broads,” which he didn’t mean in a derogatory way, “who were so hard up.” Because he noticed that there were these obviously Jewish women who were placing ads, were looking for husbands, you know, or like romantic attachments, who were Harvard alumni.
And they had this serious conversation about how hard it was for intellectual, accomplished women to find a suitable mate. So, although it didn’t, it sounded kind of crude. They had this amazing conversation about, you know, just how hard it is in the modern world for smart women to find someone who they could, they could really relate to. So again, you’d think this is just bizarre and it starts out with is almost toilet-type humor, but it was a serious conversation. They were both sort of deeply concerned that people are able to find someone who they could relate to and they recognized that this was a grave social problem. And it was real as really quite incredible. But it tells you a lot.
Tortorice: Yes, and it’s in that sense typical of the kind of discussions George would have, that they often went in that direction.
Tortorice: Yes. From a very you know, intellectual to a very personal.
Tortorice: Yes. Unique approach. So your background certainly both stimulated your engagement with education, I’m sure your parents pushed that, but then also your engagement with Jewish Studies. So where did you get, where did you do your undergraduate work?
Berkowitz: Well I’m wearing the shirt here, wearing the top from my undergraduate college, Hobart College in Geneva, New York. And I’m from Rochester. Hobart is in Geneva. And I think like most people of my background, I assumed that I would go to one of the New York State universities because they were the least expensive. They’re good schools. I wasn’t sure I could get into one of the more elite ones at the time.
They actually, at that point, the university centers that is Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, and Stony Brook were incredibly competitive to, to get into. But as it turned out, I did get in, I applied to Binghamton and got in, if I’d known that I probably wouldn’t have bothered applying to any private universities, but I applied to two private universities, I’ve got to say, not really knowing what I was doing, to Hobart and Alfred University. And I wound up getting scholarship offers from both. And Hobart gave me enough of a scholarship that it was even less money than if I had gone to one of the state universities. Even it was expensive at the time. It was around $6,000.00. But I had work-study and scholarship which increased over time. So that was wonderful and I had a very, very good experience there at Hobart, which is in some ways really traditional, really traditional liberal arts. And I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I started out thinking I might major in economics or think about going to law school. But I heard some historians in our general education classes, particularly a British historian named Walter A. Ralls, I would say more than anyone, sort of turned me on to history. And he did, he did British history, but mainly European intellectual history in a way that I think did connect with the kind of approach that George had. He was a student of Carlton J. H. Hayes (1882-1964) at Columbia. So he was very interested in particular in nationalism.
And I think that is really one of the things that wound up connecting me to, to George, even know it was another professor at Hobart, Michael Dobkowski, who was actually in the Religion Department and did Jewish Studies. He was the one who specifically suggested that I look into the possibility of working with George at, at Wisconsin. And one of the reasons why this made so much sense is that I’d decided to write about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem as my senior thesis. So even the summer before, I had started reading all of this secondary work in, mainly in modern German history and history of Nazism and Jewish history. And in reading, you know reading these secondary works was when I came to the conclusion that George’s approach was the one that I found most compelling. That is, with particularly The Crisis of German Ideology, the way that he looked at popular culture and the relationship between popular culture and politics. I found this, again, this was in the, this was in 1980. I found this to be by far the most compelling interpretation of all of the things I was reading.
And I thought that if I’m going to go on to do history in graduate school, this is a kind of approach I want to take. I want to do something that engages popular culture and its relationship to politics. And, and I was interested in nationalism as one of the most significant phenomena of the modern world. Of course, I would never know how wild it would go on later on in my own lifetime. So I will give, I should give Michael Dobkowski a lot of credit for that, for specifically pointing out George, which was seconded by Walter A. Ralls and some other people.
And there was one other person, actually a couple of people I should mention. I had courses with an American historian named Robert A. Huff, who was an excellent historian, who was especially attuned to historiography. And I think that that really put me in a good direction. And one of the books I most loved in my undergraduate time was [Richard] Hofstadter’s The
Progressive Historians, which I still think is one of the greatest books that exists in, in all of history and, and historiography. I had a professor who did East Asian historiography named Samuel H. Yamashita. And he also gave me sort of info, you know, advice about applying to graduate school. And part of it was sort of negative in a good way. That is he said don’t make the same mistake I did. He said, okay, in the end it worked out fine. But he said, I didn’t really investigate as I should. I was, he was an undergraduate, I think at Macalester College. And he applied to the major universities. He got into Michigan, which was wonderful. But he said the person who was doing Japanese history was a military historian and he really wanted to do cultural or intellectual history. And he said it wound up being such a struggle and it took them so many years to finish. He said, don’t make the same mistake I made, and he said make sure you apply to work with a specific individual. And he said, meet the person before you go. Any said, even if you have to borrow the money from me or someone else, make sure you meet whoever it is you will be working with.
So I was living very close to the bone at that time. And as I don’t need to explain, my parents didn’t have much money. But as it turned out, the main choices that I had for graduate school were either to work with George here, which was wonderful and could not be more thankful that I did. My other main alternative was the University of Michigan. And it would be to work with Jehuda Reinharz. And that was before he left to go to Brandeis. So I made it a point of visiting both of them. And as much as I had a good experience visiting Jehuda Reinharz, it was a very different experience meeting and talking to George and also Professor Reinharz was very honest.
He said at that time, he had been offered the position at Brandeis and he said he wasn’t sure if he was going to accept it or not, but he said he was confident that Michigan would hire a first-rate person in his place you know, if, if he himself, if he himself left. And I was also-
Tortorice: Those are two very different approaches to history.
Berkowitz: Oh, yeah, very different, but, but the main thing was, I was quite sure I wanted to do something in German Jewish history, something that involved German Jews. So at that point, these were two of, you know it was George and Jehuda Reinharz and I was also, I was also considering the University of Rochester probably because of proximity. But there had been a student at Hobart who had gone on and done a very interesting PhD on the Jewish origins of psychoanalysis with William McGrath (d. 2008) at, at the University of Rochester. That is Dennis Klein, who has since become a very good friend and colleague of mine. And Abraham Karp (1921-2003) was there who was an American Jewish historian but supervised a lot of different work. And at Brandeis, it seemed there was a group of people who might, might be interested. And the person who responded to me very, very kindly was Leon Jick (1924-2005) who mainly had written about American synagogues. And I wasn’t really all that interested in that as a, in that as a subject. And I think in retrospect, I probably should have considered Berkeley and Gerald Feldman (1937-2007). I probably, I might have considered Columbia, but at that time I didn’t really have a sense that Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was that interested in modern history, even though the students he took really, really were moving moremtoward, toward modern history. And also Gerhard Weinberg at the University of North Carolina. But again, this is the pre-internet days. I mean, people didn’t really have the kind of broader awareness that they have now, but-
Tortorice: Well, you made a good choice.
Berkowitz: Well, I made a good choice, but I will say that something else that was very fortunate: because I was George’s last student and his only student at the time. I developed really wonderful collegial relations with my colleagues at these other places who did exist you know in more of a, a cohort. So I became very, very close to students of Gerhard Weinberg’s from North Carolina. I became very close to students of Yerushalmi’s at Columbia, like John Efron, Michael Brenner, David Myers, I eventually came to know Elisheva Carlebach. I mean, there’s some really wonderful, very, very wonderful people from that cohort. Then from Gerald Feldman, Derek Penslar who was one of my closest colleagues. So in some ways I had the best of all worlds by being here with George.
Tortorice: Okay, so we were talking about your undergraduate years and you said you wanted to mention a few additional influences and then we will get to Madison.
Berkowitz: Yeah. I just wanted to mention that there were some other very fine historians who I had courses with at different times. There’s Carol V.R. George who did African American history. She was one of the professors when I did a term abroad in London, which thankfully my, Hobart paid for, otherwise, I never would’ve been able to do that. Susanne McNally who was a Russian historian.
And then I was also very influenced by someone in the, in the Education Department because I did the teacher training program named Madeleine Grumet, a really superb scholar and teacher who went on to become the head of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina. And I’m sure there, there are many others as well. And I also had some very good English courses. And that also helped influence me in the direction of, of, of cultural history.
Tortorice: Well it’s obvious that you really took to education and that this was your passion, and this opportunity that was given to your family. So, so you arrived at Madison, you did have some financial support. George had essentially stopped taking graduates, students in 1972. And so as you said, when you arrived, you were his only graduate student still working on their PhD. How did you manage to get him to accept you as a student? Because he was he was really reticent to take new students.
Berkowitz: Well, you know I’d, I wrote him about the possibility of working with him and he initially wrote me back and he said I’m sorry to tell you that I’m, that I’m going to be retiring and that I’ve been spending roughly half my time in Jerusalem, so I won’t be taking any PhD students.
So I wrote back and I said, without having any expectation that this would change—oh, but he said, I would be happy to continue corresponding with you to help you find the best place for you. You know, that there are plenty of very good people out there and I’m sure that you’ll, you’ll do well.
And I wrote back and I said, I’m not sure how interested I am in pursuing this. Even though I think I will, because there really isn’t anyone I was nearly as interested in working with as you. I had no expectation that, that this was going to change. I said, But I will, I do plan to keep you informed. You know, these are the places I’m still, I’m still considering. And he wrote me back and said, Oh, you shouldn’t be, you know, don’t be distressed and there are plenty of people.
But then he wrote me again and he said circumstances have changed. I’ve decided to postpone my retirement, so I would, I would, I would take you and I actually hadn’t even formally applied yet. But he said I would accept you. But there has to be a, at least in the beginning, a joint supervision with Sterling Fishman (1932-1997) because I simply won’t be here to sign forms and do that kind of thing. I think you’ll find he is the most agreeable person and, you know, and fine scholar. And so that would, that seemed just that was just fine for me. I mean, yeah, that sounded that sounded great. But he said that what he would, what he would require though is that I had to start immediately. He said given that he was planning to retire, that I couldn’t take a year off because I was thinking of either teaching for a year or maybe going and figuring out some way to improve my German, you know, maybe spending a year.
Tortorice: What year was this, Michael?
Berkowitz: This was, well it was 1980 and I was graduating in 1981. So it was 1980 that he decided that he was going to, that he was going to stay for an extended period in, in Wisconsin. So this is he made he made me this sort of offer that I would be, that I would be accepted, so…
Tortorice: Because he was thinking of moving to London, to Amsterdam. He was very tempted at that point in his life to retire and leave Madison. So somehow, he must have made that decision that year to stay.
Berkowitz: Well, he definitely made this decision between the time I, I believe that I wrote him in either August or September of 1980, and then we were corresponding in September and October. And then eventually I came over the, I think it was over the Thanksgiving break in November of 1980. So it had to be in that window of opportunity. And what I would, what I would suspect, although I never really talked to him about it as much as I became very close to him.
Possibly it was Sterling’s influence. It could be that Sterling helped push him to take another student. And, and again, Steve Aschheim had finished. He’d actually just recently published actually, I think he had recently published his book or that was, that was going all right at the time. I think Steve was at Reed College then? Or maybe he was just then going to Hebrew University and he was at Reed College, and he was at Reed College in Portland. And George had had another PhD student who had more or less withdrawn, who had a very complicated situation, who I became extremely close to and still a very, very good friend of mine, Joel Truman, who is an utterly brilliant man, and he’s become very significant in the world of health policy, originally here in Wisconsin and then in, in New York State.
Tortorice: So Joel was a person that I met, but I never knew what happened to him.
Berkowitz: Yeah, he’s, he lives in New York. He’s got a very interesting life. He might be retired at this point, but Joel is one most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He had a, he had a 4.0 at Yale, I think as a German and History major in the days long before grade inflation. Really incredible person. And he also worked with me a lot as I was doing dissertation drafts, he was amazingly helpful to me. And George remained very close to him.
Berkowitz: And his sort of partner at the time, a woman named Gloria Levine, who’s now deceased, and he was very close to the both of them. So it’s in some ways, it’s kind of unusual that someone could no longer be the student of someone, yet they still have very good, very good personal relations. I think that really says a lot. It really says a lot about George.
Tortorice: Quite a few people actually who didn’t actually finish stayed in touch with George and actually had significant careers.
Tortorice: So you arrived in Madison in 1980. What was Madison like? What was the History Department like in those years?
Berkowitz: Well, I mean, well in my time and again, I would have to go through, remember that this is this is before the internet. But I remember that, that the big, the, the main rankings that people were concerned with were what was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And at that time, Madison was near the top in several fields. I don’t know if it was number one, maybe it was number three or number four. But at that time, history, sociology, even economics was near the top of, of a number of these fields. I think the 1980s was actually, people always talk the 1960s, but the 1980s was actually a very, very good time, and the department was extremely strong.
Gerda Lerner (1920-2013) was hired the same year that I came. And she immediately brought a group of incredibly high-powered, you know, graduate students, with her, some of whom have gone on to be incredibly illustrious. So I’m very proud to say that I came in the same year with people like Nancy Isenberg and Nancy MacLean. I mean, these are, wow, these are real stars. You know people who became great stars of the, of the field and other people were just really in great from there to say Jan Vansina (1929-2017) had a group of great students. I mean, he was probably the leading person in African History at the time, you know, Ted [Theodore] Hamerow (1920-2013) still had students then. He was still taking students.
I mean, there were wonderful people across the board. Ed[ward] Gargan (1922-1995) had a group of really excellent, really excellent graduate students. I mean, it was, I think is really remarkable. Stanley Kutler (1934-2015) in legal history. And now I look back on it. I think, it was, I mean, we thought it was a great time then. But even, you know, the more distance we have, we, we, we weren’t crazy. It was really in many ways, a really wonderful, wonderful time, say Bill [William] Courtney and medieval history, Courtney and [Robert] Kingdon (1927-2010). So and even some other fields, say Diane Lindstrom (1944-2018), who was in business history. And there were, there were a lot of very, very strong people around.
I also had the great fortune of working as a TA for Domenico Sella (1926-2012). I was actually a TA in economic history. And as much as, you know, there was nothing like George’s classes, but Domenico Sella’s economic history course could be one of the greatest college classes of all time. It was a really amazing class.
Tortorice: I took that class., he was a great, great teacher.
Berkowitz: Really amazing class. And he was a wonderful man. I mean, what a wonderful man.
Tortorice: Yes, indeed. So you’re at Madison, you’re in this really high-powered, enriching department. So at that point, there wasn’t Jewish Studies at UW. There wasn’t really a focus on Jewish history. And yet you had some people, there like Gerda, Stan Kutler, and others.
Berkowitz: Ken Sacks.
Tortorice: Ken Sacks.
Berkowitz: Yeah, Sterling.
Tortorice: Because in some ways the field really, a lot of people emerged from Madison in those years that really defined the field of Jewish history, Jewish Studies in America, it’s really quite extraordinary. So what was that all about? How did that, I was thinking, well, this could have been even a little earlier, but when George first started teaching his Jewish history course which I think was 1971, some of his students were people like Nancy Green, and, you know, and Hasia Diner, and
Berkowitz: Vicki Caron. Yeah.
Tortorice: And David Sorkin. And, you know, then he had his graduate students, Christopher Browning, and we had, it’s really it’s extraordinary the people that really defined the field and came out of UW and the kind of approach they took.
Berkowitz: And Jeffrey C. Herf. Yeah. I mean, it’s just it’s really it’s really, really incredible. But one thing I do want to say because I think it really, it says an awful lot about George, and I shared one of the pieces of correspondence already with Skye. This is my first year, I almost, it was almost the end because I got really sick when I was here in Madison.
Well, I had been getting progressively ill the summer before I, I started graduate school. And then I was increasingly ill with severe abdominal pain and I was eventually diagnosed as having Crohn’s disease. And I had a very rough first term. And I, I had, was scheduled to have surgery in Rochester. I was going to like take not a formal leave but I was going to be missing some time in the, in the second term.
So I was planning on going back to Rochester for the, for the surgery because I thought Oh, for the recovery it would be better for me to be at home and my mother would have been able to take some time off. But what happened, what happened was, I came back to Madison after the winter break. I came, came back with the woman who was my girlfriend at the time, very wonderful young woman. And I ruptured. I think this was very ear-, I think it was very early January 1982. I had a massive bowel rupture and I got peritonitis. So I was incredibly sick and I had a bowel resection, you know, and a fabulous surgeon here I think is still around named Eberhard Mack. And my doctor was David Solomon, gastroenterologist.
So I wound up having the major surgery here and missed a lot of time. And I thought I might have to, have to just quit. I thought it was just too much, but I got a letter from, from George, who was then in Jerusalem. And, and I actually shared this where he said, oh, you’ve done so well, you really shouldn’t worry in the grand scheme of things, this is not going to take that much time away. The most important thing is for you to recover. And then the funniest thing he said is George being the great atheist. He said, you’re not responsible for an act of God, which I thought was utterly hysterical for him to actually write this.
So that was, I’ve got to say if not for getting that kind of support, I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it. And also that just I mean, he called and he and he wrote and he could not have been more supportive as was, as was Sterling. But I’ve got to say it was, it was really a very rough, very rough period. I had an ileostomy. I had a a bag for either six or eight weeks and then, and I was in Rochester for that recovery. Then I came back and I had my resection.
I was put back together. And then after I was put back together, I resumed my classes. It was just, this is really strange thinking about it now, I should have taken time off or I should have taken some official leave. I didn’t take an official leave and part of the reason was because I had, although now it seems like such a small amount of money from student loans as an undergrad, it was just a couple thousand dollars, but I couldn’t take time off because it would have meant I would have had to start paying back, I would’ve had to start paying back money.
And I should also say, I came to Wisconsin with a non-resident scholarship that although there was tuition, it was extremely, extremely low at the time, and George made made me the promise that as soon as it was possible to give me some official aid, whether either as a research assistant or the way to TA structure worked, you couldn’t do it immediately that, that I would be covered and it worked well.
But I also said I’m happy to work. I said I’ve always worked and I was able, I found a job at the Law School Library. And then eventually I got a job as a tour guide in the state Capitol, which I had for several years, which was, which was wonderful. And my roommate, my roommate, Tom Carey, who was an undergrad business student, was working the Law School Library. He helped get me the job in the Law School Library, which actually paid more than decently at the time, as did the, as did the job at the, at the state Capitol which was wonderful and interesting, and George took my tour. He would bring people to take my tour when they came to visit. And it was really quite, it was really quite amusing.
Tortorice: Yes, I can imagine.
Tortorice: Well, it, it’s fascinating in a sense that you weren’t the only student that George mentored that ended up having an illness, like a serious illness initially when they came to work with him. That’s I mean, when you’ve had a 40-year career…
Tortorice: But it is, I’ve noticed that from a couple of other people who had really serious, one was Seymour Drescher. And yeah, but anyways, so at this point in his career, George was, well, he had written on Jewish history in the 1970s and German Jews Beyond Judaism. Did that come out when you were in Madison?
Berkowitz: No, it was, it was a little earlier. I think it was. It was, it was, but that was the main reason, along with [The] Crisis of German Ideology, it was really Germans and Jews that was what really led me to,led me to focus on him.
But getting back to the subject of why, why, you know, get another graduate student. I also think it was that, I think he wanted to teach Jewish history, and he was concerned about having a TA or just even a grader, having someone who had some background or someone who he was comfortable working with because it was clear that he, that he did want to do that again.
And I think he wound up doing it twice.
Tortorice: It sounds like you came along right at the right time because he was deciding whether he actually wanted to retire, to move, so that was that that turned out to be a very good alignment
Tortorice: of people there.
Berkowitz: Well, going back to the first term, that first term, he offered an undergraduate seminar course which met at his, at his house. I think it was once a week. And one of the people in that course, Bernie Friedman, a nice Jewish guy from Chicago who had been a transfer from Tulane, became a good friend of mine and he’s to this day one of my dearest friends. And Bernie’s had a career in Hollywood and high-tech and he’s also, he’s published a book on the history of architecture. And I think he also considers himself a Mossean, and interestingly, his book was in the same catalogue as mine from the University of Texas Press.
Tortorice: Is Bernie, what’s his last name?
Berkowitz: His name is Friedman. Bernie Friedman, and he’s from Skokie. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful guy. And like I said, I, I really got to know him through this, through this class on sexuality, that it was the subject of the class was—
Tortorice: That was one of the first.
Berkowitz: Yeah, it was really an incredible class.
Tortorice: You know, I think George probably was one of the first professors probably in the US to teach an undergraduate seminar on the history of sexuality. I can’t imagine there were very many others that were doing it.
Berkowitz: I will say, I wrote, the paper that he really liked, which had nothing to do with my graduate work, I wrote a paper about sexuality in the context of British imperialism in India. And I remember using the work of James Mill (1773-1836) and this other thing and and, although it was more continuation of things I’ve done as an undergraduate, I wasn’t really, I hadn’t really found the topic yet for the MA or what I was going to be doing for the PhD. So he said fine, write about what you’re interested in for this undergraduate, undergraduate paper. But that turned out very well. And obviously that’s never really gone away. You know, I, I mean, now I’m actually the editor of the, of Jewish Historical Studies, the Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of England. So I’ve never really left that, having some interest in British history as, as part of what I’m doing. That, that went into the work on Zionism as well. Britain wound up being quite important there.
Tortorice: So in the early eighties, George was moving into work on fallen soldiers, on monuments, and that-
Berkowitz: He had already been working on the monuments before.
I think Masses and Man was, was already out. But what he was, what he was writing, I, I think at the time was Nationalism and Sexuality, or what became Nationalism and Sexuality, because I was actually a research assistant for him for, for that book, even though I’m not thanked in the acknowledgments, but that’s okay. Sometimes these things slipped him. But, but I remember at one point tracking down the publishing details on this book on onanism and women, you know, because he needed a publisher or a date or something, you know, that he didn’t write down all the information and I remember that was one of the things I had to do as research assistant was to find the final information for the footnotes for that particular book. So I know that that’s one thing that certainly came out in the time in a time when I was here,
Tortorice: That’s right there in the early eighties, in particular, that was what he was working on.
Tortorice: I think that book was published first in Italian in 1984, and then by UW Press. That ended up being a very influential book. Certainly. So what did you decide to work on?
Berkowitz: Well, I decided, partly because of that, because of that seminar that I had with him, and also he was always interested in this figure who’s now become kind of bizarrely mainstream, who was considered very marginal, Max Nordau (1849-1923). And Nordau was the kind of person he talked about over and over and over again. And sort of there’s a small group of people in the world who are concerned with Max Nordau, including Sander Gilman and, and some others.
Tortorice: Not anymore.
Berkowitz: Excuse me?
Tortorice: Not anymore, he’s really a major figure.
Berkowitz: Oh yeah, now, now a major figure, but George helped make him into a, a major figure. So one of my fellow students, actually very nice guy named Zack Harris who moved to, made aliyah, and he wound up, I don’t know if he did a PhD, he certainly did a Master’s at the Hebrew University. But he had done his presentation and paper on a play by Max Nordau called “A Question of Honor.” And, you know, it was a nice paper and I started looking around and I found that there really wasn’t very much that was written about Nordau and Zionism. So I decided to do my master’s about Max Nordau and the Zionist movement which George thought was great. You know, that there was definitely, there were definitely things to be said about Nordau and Zionism and the early Zionist congresses, which there really hadn’t been very much written on.
So I thought this was, this was a good subject and that was how I found the topic for my PhD because as I was doing the work on Max Nordau for what became the MA, which in some ways I’m still somewhat proud of, and I think most of its holds up fairly well.
It’s not terribly embarrassing as far as some older work we do is, but what I found was that when I was reading the periodical literature, I was sort of amazed that there was so little there in terms of the substance of Jewish settlement in Palestine, that most of the population wasn’t Zionist. There were these small colonies. But I was really struck by the fact that there were flags and songs and banners and national heroes and sort of a whole cultural apparatus that existed before the nation itself.
So I decided to write on this. And what really struck me was the idea that the Zionists were committed to building a national movement. Even for the people who they didn’t imagine as those who would populate the nation itself. That is, the movement as it was emerging, did not think that most Jews would move from Central Europe or Western Europe or the United States, that it was primarily going to be for the Jews in Eastern Europe and maybe in other distressed places in the world. So I thought this is really rather fascinating that we have this fully, eventually fully blown national movement, which develops for people who aren’t seen as the main national constituents in a normative sense.
So that’s what I decided to write about, which in some ways is sort of getting to say some, maybe some later things we’ll talk about. It made what I did weird in another ways, kind of ahead of its time because other people weren’t really dealing with nationalism in that way. But in some ways it was very Mossean in that I was dealing with myths and symbols, but it was myths and symbols symbols of a nation that didn’t actually exist and wasn’t even that close to existing at that, at that point. So that’s really what, that’s really what made it. That’s really what made it go.
Tortorice: And then that ended up being your doctoral thesis?
Berkowitz: Yeah. Yeah, that one of them being the dissertation. And I will say, the stupidest thing I ever did in my academic career was not following the entirety of George’s advice. That is, as I developed the plan for the dissertation, he thought that it was good and very supportive, but he said, I knew I should have another chapter which is on the early Hebrew literature that was read by Zionists who are interested in Hebrew in Central Europe. And my Hebrew wasn’t all that great. It would never become all that great. I was worried about the dissertation being too long.
I thought that it was getting into areas that I just wasn’t all that comfortable. So I decided not to do it. And in retrospect, that was a really stupid mistake. I should have taken more time. I should have had another chapter in this area. It would have been a reason for gaining greater familiarity with the language and the literature. It would have it, although I think the book turned out very well, the work turned out very well. But wow was a great advice that he gave me which I didn’t.
And you know, he he could live with my not doing it. He understood that it was a rather tall order that he was asking for, but that really would’ve added a different dimension to my career. But I’ve got to say it was hard enough reading the German handwriting, you know, in the Zionists archive, reading the letters of [Theodor] Herzl and Nordau at that time. Talk about a different age. They gave you tracing paper. So I learned how to read this handwriting which now I’m sure I couldn’t read ever ever again. But this was something that I wasn’t quite ready to add another year or so to the PhD in order to do this additional chap-But it brilliant advice that he had
Tortorice: …ended up being actually very influential.
Berkowitz: Yes. Yeah.
Tortorice: Yes, and given the current situation…
Berkowitz: And it would’ve it would’ve put me way ahead in other in other ways. But again, things, you never know how things would have turned out. Although I did have great, I had, in some respects great success, published, I published relatively soon. And although I will say there were very good reviews and some very hostile reviews. But now the book is basically seen as mainstream. You sort of, you know, this, a standard or the standard interpretation of early Zionism in many, in many respects.
Tortorice: You know, George’s books often got good and bad reviews. They’re not actually all superlative. So when you were here, you were also teaching as a TA-
Berkowitz: And I was a grader.
Tortorice: Ok. And you taught TA for George…
Tortorice: …in cultural history and Jewish history?
Berkowitz: Cultural history and Jewish history.
Tortorice: Ok, that would have been in the early eighties.
Tortorice: What was that experience like?
Berkowitz: It was, oh, I mean, it was it was an amazing amount of work. I can’t even remember how many sections we had, either six or nine.
Tortorice: It was serious! I recall, because I took that class. It was a serious undertaking. George was a tough teacher.
Berkowitz: Oh yeah. It was, it was very serious and it was, it was a lot, it was a lot of work. I mean, lots of students and in both cultural history and in Jewish history, but these, they were unbelievable courses. I mean, I still go back to my notes. For, for those courses, they were really incredible when I think about the kind of ground that was, that was covered with Marx and Hegel and Wagner and and you know, be it Pascal.
And I mean it just, it was, it was really amazing thinking the,the range of it and the Jewish history, Jewish history class, I think I was, I can’t remember which course I was a grader for as opposed to being a TA, but I know I TA’d for at least a few different courses for him I TA’d for, for Sterling. I TA’d for Bob Koehl for the World War II class and, and also I think a general European history class. I TA’d for Ted Hamerow for his introductory course, which was an amazing course. And as I said, for Domenico Sella in the economic history, which was just fabulous, and so, you know, what I learned in TAing for these classes was terrific. And of course I look back on it somewhat horrified thinking of what an idiot I was as a TA. And how could people put up with me, you know, that I really think, knowing what I know now I think I would have, would approach things very, very, very, very differently.
But thankfully it wasn’t it wasn’t more of a disaster. But there are times when I would meet colleagues who had either very little or no teaching experience when they began their careers. And I thought, wow, and so I’m just very, very fortunate that I’ve had, that I’ve had this kind of experience…
Tortorice: And from a great teacher.
Tortorice: I mean, did you learn anything about teaching from George?
Berkowitz: Oh, I’ve got to say, I mean, thankfully I had some very good teachers at, at, at Hobart, especially Walter Ralls and, and, and Bob Huff were, were very fine, very fine teachers. But I must say that one of the things that I saw from George which was just incredible, was that he could lecture to a large group but still be engaged with them. And although it wasn’t a discussion, he would dedicate like a, a, a class every few weeks to taking questions which were, which were really quite, really quite amazing. You know, good questions and very good, very good exchange.
And also the way that he lectured was very often, you would think this but, you know, it was, there was, there was sort of a dialogic aspect of the lecture, which sometimes it was very funny, but it was really a distinct style. And I’d say that I found it very agreeable. And-
Tortorice: It’s hard to imagine,
Berkowitz: It’s hard to imagine. Of course, everyone develops their own. But, but I’d say for me, I prefer lecturing. That is as opposed to a more discussion-based thing.
This is what I’m most comfortable with. And I will say that although I’ve had a great roller coaster academic career in many ways, I think I’ve been fairly successful at it. And I, I certainly enjoy doing it and I enjoy the teaching. I think one of the things that people don’t recognize, one of the most, one of the most important things I could say is he loved the teaching, he loved the lecturing, He loved the engagement with students. And it was clearly informed by his research. And when I would hear people say things like, Oh, you know, there are great teachers but they don’t want to be good researchers. Or if somebody is concerned with the research, it means that they’re not a good teacher. And I said, well, that’s basically bullshit. That I think one of the things I saw with George Mosse and other people here, is it the people who were the most outstanding researchers also were the greatest teachers. They were people have figured out ways incorporate their research and their teaching. And it’s not an either or situation. Yeah, it becomes boring.
Tortorice: You become burnt out.
Berkowitz: Yeah, you become burnt out. So I think that, that, that this idea that there’s some sort of separation, I find that utterly absurd. You know, it just, it does, it’s never really made sense to me. And I think my, my teaching has always been informed, you know, informed by the research whether I talk about it really explicitly or not.
And then the other thing that, that, that I think is important, and I’m not sure if George ever really articulated this, but I think in terms of the people who he was really close to. And I think sometimes like like say with my own kids, sometimes they think, Oh well, friends of mine invite me to give lectures. I’m friendly with this person or that person it’s all very cozy. But I think what they don’t understand is that you become people, you become close to people who you really respect. And very often the people you respect, are the people whose work sort of complements what you’ve seen yourself in the archives, or when they have insights that actually illuminate something else. Like one of the reasons why I’m as sympathetic as I am to somebody who is quite a controversial figure. Tim Snyder at Yale is, there are some of the things he said that are quite controversial. I’ve actually seen reflected in stuff I’ve seen in the archives. So I have sort of a special sympathy for you. Okay, he’s a great historian, but it’s like I will defend him even though I think there’re good criticisms to be made of his work. But there’s something that he’s doing that really connects to what I’ve seen. And I think George was the same way that he connected to people who he saw. Wow, sort of figured out things that were connected to the stuff that he saw himself in the archives. Not just a minute. Oh, I like this person or that person. These are the reasons why we make the kind of choices we make in terms of who we’re close to.
Tortorice: It wasn’t a profession for him. It was more a calling and he expected other people to take this extremely seriously and engage with it at a very high level.
I think that’s really true, but I think he also tried out his own ideas as he was teaching.
Berkowitz: Oh, absolutely.
Tortorice: And he formulated, formulated them in preparing lectures and I think he used his teaching very much as part of his research.
Berkowitz: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. There’s there’s there’s there’s no question about it. Yeah. There’s no question about that. That he incorporated that is, say what went into the German Jews Beyond Judaism book. He did as, he did as, as classes. And of course, he loved, he loved to joke around by saying that, Oh, he’s completely stolen from David Sorkin. But of course David Sorkin would say that, well, he got a lot of this from George in the first place. But, yeah.
Tortorice: But, so is, is your approach to Jewish history shaped by your experiences here, by George’s approach, which tended towards a more universalist, complex approach embedded within the overall schema of European history? What, what was unique about George’s approach to Jewish history that contrasts or complements others in the field during his lifetime? Because he had many firsts as a historian, and he made contributions in so many areas. But what was it about Jewish history that you think was his major contribution?
Berkowitz: Well, I think that, you know, not to be too simplistic about it. But Jewish history has always struggled with really rigorously interrogating its own myths. And a lot of times this has tended toward extremes of either being supportive or rejection. And I think that the more we know about Jewish history, the more we know that it is interwoven with all kinds of myths that sometimes have some substance and sometimes don’t have much substance. But I think people tend to think of Jews are people of the book and Jews are more rational and they follow this kind of scheme, but maybe they aren’t so rational. Maybe they have been just as influenced by things like myths and symbols and sort of ideas about their own history, which are rather half-baked than the kind of logic we tend to ascribe to them. So I’d say that that’s, that is part of it. And then also and I would say this is this in some ways it’s, it’s my success and also where I’ve gotten into trouble. But it was a big part of where I sort of came, came together with with George. And that is one of the things he said over and over and over again in classes was that people don’t read, they see. They don’t read, they see, that he was always interested, although he dealt so much with, with texts of various kind of highbrow literature, popular literature, all sorts of things.
But he was also very concerned with what is, what is in the world around people that they make sense of or that they think that they make sense of. So I think that one of the reasons why we as good and constructive a relationship as we had, is he thought there was an awful lot to be done, even if it was only, say, two chapters of the dissertation itself, of the engagement with visual culture and the Jewish world, which I think, wow, people just accept this as a major part of Jewish Studies.
Well, it wasn’t. I mean, when I started going the Association for Jewish Studies meetings in the late 80s, early 90s, you had to scream and yell in order to bring a, a slide projector in. A slide projector, this was absurd! What does, what does showing slides have anything to do with, with Jewish studies or Jewish history? People really didn’t understand it. So I think that his sense that this was really significant when I started doing this work and was showing him photographs of the portraits of Herzl and Nordau and David Wolffsohn (1856-1914) and the flags and the postcards. We sat in my flat in Jerusalem and he said, Nobody’s ever dealt with these things before. You know, and I will also give credit-
Tortorice: Besides him.
Berkowitz: Besides him. But he said that no, nobody’s touched this. And but I will also say, I’ll give a lot of credit to archivists. He always encouraged me to get as much out of archivists as possible and to appreciate them and use them. And Michael Heymann, who was a director of the Central Zionist Archives when I started working there. He’s the one who directed me to what was called the ephemera material, which was literally in decaying cardboard boxes from the Jewish National Fund. He said, I think you might find some of what you’re looking for is actually in there connected to fundraising, which I had no idea that that was what I was going to be doing. But George also loved this kind of thing that I was connecting to that kind of, that I was connecting to that kind of material. So I think that this connection of popular culture and politics, which really had not been part of, so much a part of Jewish history a little, there were some others were moving in that way.
Tortorice: He was such a pioneer in the use of popular culture
Tortorice: and popular manifestations of culture such as post cards or literature. I mean, he really was a pioneer at it, and influenced art history and visual cultural studies.
Tortorice: I sometimes don’t think that’s really recognized.
Berkowitz: Well, I mean, I, I will, I will, I will mention a number of people were very influenced by him, who I think are not necessarily seen as being, not necessarily seen as being influenced, influenced by him.
I mean, just to give you a couple of examples, I mean, Peter Fritzsche who’s done all sorts of things with popular culture and things that are visual in German history, I think widely considered one of the great German historians of our time. George was one of the people who was conducting the Wiener seminar at Wiener Library seminar at Tel Aviv University. When he was there, he had a big influence on him. One of the undergraduates who was finishing up during my time here was David Dennis, who’s now professor at Loyola in Chicago. David’s a fabulous historian who wrote arguably the greatest cultural study of the significance of Beethoven in German culture, looking at things like pictures and post cards and all kinds of things. He’s now writing on computing within history. Utterly brilliant, wonderful historian.
Arieh Sapoznik, who I call Bruce, who was one of my undergraduates here when I TA’d for, TA’d for George. Maybe he was one of my students when I TA’d for Ted Hamerow as well, I’m not, I’m not quite sure. I’m still I’m very close to him. I was very close to his parents. Of course Irv Sapoznik and Francy but I think that Arieh Sapoznik’s Becoming Hebrew about the emergence of a national culture in Palestine, which in some ways is kind of the flip side of what I did looking at Europe, is one of the most Mossean books of all time. It’s incredible. Mark Bassin who was an undergraduate, in Madison who is a geographer. He’s written about Russia. Again, if you look at his stuff, very, very influenced by George Mosse.
I’d say the same is true, although she never actually studied with him, Holly Case, who’s a historian of Eastern Europe, who was at Cornell, now she’s at Brown. I look at her work, I think, wow, this is, this is really influenced by George. You can just see it, you can see his fingerprints all over the place.
Tortorice: Even Slezkine’s new book, I think there’s a lot of Mosse influence there. I think he’s in the bibliography but I think it’s an approach that has been so universally adopted that it’s difficult to assign any responsibility to George.
Berkowitz: You know, well, to give you another example, someone who I’ve never met personally, but I love the book. That is Emily Levine’s book on Dreamland of Humanists, about the Warburg Institute, which I think is one of the, one of the greatest cultural histories of the last 10 or 20 years. And although she obviously didn’t study with George and she is much younger than I am, it’s such a Mossean approach that it’s really quite striking, it, what is it? It’s not really an institutional history. It’s not really conventional cultural history. The way she interweaves the different, the different layers and the personalities and all that. This is really a Mossean book in the best sense.
Tortorice: Well you’re the, of all of George’s PhDs, you’re the one that pursued this most vigorously, this aspect of his work, and your engagement with the history of boxing, of criminality, of photography, all of these really groundbreaking and fascinating areas that you’ve worked in and are working in, was, came out of, of, of an aspect of George’s work that was both scholarly but also used was, but was also accessible and very visual, which is the culture we live in now. So tell me about your work in that area. What you’ve done, what you plan to do, how your discussions with George on an aspect, aspects of Jewishness that were not explored previously that, that you have worked on.
Berkowitz: Well, I think just going back to the, going back to the dissertation itself, one of the things that I was very conscious of, which I must say there’s some been some strange things written, whether it’s in books or in articles, which are they sort of show that they miss the point. But one of the things I wanted to talk about is, and this is of course very much the moment when I was working with them. But I saw this so reflected in what I was, what I had in front of me as I was reading it, that is, that early Zionism was, it, was this movement of men. It was men and they talked about masculinity and what this meant to them, you know, manliness and friendship. And it was almost too much. That it was almost as if, you know, how could these people have been reading George Mosse, you know, in the future that it was just, it was just so explicit in terms of how his analysis fit with this. So I wrote about Zionism as this movement of Jewish men, at this particular, at this particular time. So I was very aware of sort of the gendered significance of it. And also in terms of how this was related to the portraiture and the graphics and how this was really, how all of this was interwoven.
So I did that. And then, because women were far from unimportant in the Zionism story, I intended the second book to be a history of women in Zionism. But then as I got more deeply into it, I saw that I was having grave problems with the standard historiography on the Zionist movement, which I thought really was not reflecting what I was finding in the archives.
So I wound up writing in some ways more of a continuation of the first book as a second book. That is, the second one was Western Jewry and the Zionist Project, which pretty much continued along the same lines but, but I also came to the conclusion that you couldn’t really separate Central Europe from Britain and America with discussing Zionism, because particularly during and after the First World War, everything changes and they are much more interwoven than they were in this earlier period. And you just can’t disconnect them. They’re always playing off of each other. They’re always connected. It’s more of one piece and increasingly separate from what was going on in Eastern Europe. Although you could say, well, they were connected in very important ways. So I did that.
And then as a third book, I did a more general book. I was invited by Sander Gilman to do a book in a series he was editing from Reaktion Press in London on visual culture. So it was mainly on the icons that I had been dealing with in Zionism, but then it was expanded to include Jewish communism and socialism and various other, various other movements. So that was called The Jewish Self-Image, which in some ways, you could say is my, my, in some ways my least successful book. I got really hostile reviews to that, although some were good, but now it’s regarded, as, people are constantly bringing it up and saying nice things about it. I’m glad that I’m glad that I did it. I’m I’d still, for the most part stand stand by it.
So that was the third book. And for a long time I had been considering doing something on Jews and criminality, partly, you know, in order to do a more popular book. And George and I had been talking about this for years. And one of the ways that he used to begin his Jewish history course was this lecture called Jews and bandits, that is, he was fascinated by the Jewish robber bands in early modern Europe, which extended to northern Europe. And he told me that he had had extensive discussions with Gershom Scholem about this subject, and Scholem had wanted to write about this himself. But then he got a little bit diverted in this topic of Jewish mysticism, which sort of occupied, occupied his life. So I’d always been interested in that. And also George telling me read Michael Gold Jews Without Money, which is filled with prostitutes and pimps and all kinds of other characters. So I’d started doing research for this big book on Jews and the association of Jews with criminality. And I thought that the easiest chapter was going to be the Nazi association of Jews with criminality. And I started reading the secondary literature. And I found that almost nobody had talked about this explicitly, except for George in Nazi Culture. And he didn’t go into it in great depth, but it was very suggestive, very suggestive.
And I wound up doing this as a separate book called The Crime of My Very Existence, which was published in 2007 by University of California Press, which, I’ve got to say, I’m very happy with how this book turned out.And I wound up not writing the big book aboutJews and criminality, although I incorporate this into my lectures and maybe I’ll go back to it at, at, at some other point.It got worked into the boxing and and other parts.So I was certainly looking at the visual dimension of that, but there was a limited number of photographs that I could use, that I could use for that book.So that was, that was the fourth one that was, and I’d done edited, edited work as well andI was involved with this exhibition on Jews and boxing.But something happened as I was working on that book, and this was, this was, this was after George’s time, but I’d worked to Kodak.I’d always been interested in things that were visual.I’d worked, I’d worked in the film emulsion, melting department.My father worked there.He was a good amateur photographer. You know, I had a different sense of photography and sort of the constructedness of photographs and all that than maybe some other people did. But then I learned something, you know, after afterGeorge was already gone, that I was never able to share with him that I found that my own family had been involved in photography in Europe.That a branch my family had been photographers.
So it was after that point, after The Crime of My Very Existence book that I turned to photography as a subject in and of itself.But in some ways it was really quite logical to do it because I had always dealt with photography with the work I’d done withGeorge and in some ways one of the, although I miss, I miss him terribly,I’m particularly sad that he didn’t get to see this turn because I think he would’ve been fascinated by this connection between Jews and, Jews and photography whereI’ve basically continued.
And so the, the fifth monograph I published was a book that was supposed to be a footnote to a much larger book on Jews in photography in Britain, I thought I’d be writing about Jews and photography and mainly in Eastern Europe and Central Europe, somewhat in the United States. I thought that there wouldn’t be much to say about Britain and it turned out it’s a 400-page book.
Tortorice: Has that been published?
Berkowitz: Oh yeah. That was published by the University of Texas Press.
Tortorice: Oh, this is the most recent one.
Berkowitz: Yeah, that’s the most recent. Yeah, that was the most recent, the most recent book.
Tortorice: Oh yes. I have not yet looked at that yet.
Berkowitz: So I think that you could say there’s certain continuities, but in other ways there are some, you know, I’ve gone off and in some different directions that I’ve done increasing work on the Holocaust. As I’ve traveled and spent a lot of time, particularly in Lithuania, so I’ve also gone back to that as a, gone back to that as a subject of research but it’s, at the moment, I’m working on three different, three different books. You know.
And have another one that’s a little bit further out. But all of them have some kind of connection to have, some kind of connection to George. But it’s a just to give one, one, just one, one aspect of it. I’m working now on the history of Kodachrome film, which comes out of Rochester, New York, you know, Eastman Kodak Company. And the inventors were too young Jewish men who were the children of classical musicians, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., and Leopold Mannes. And both their fathers were very big in the world of classical music in, in New York.
But my main academic argument, which I just wish George was here to talk about is, is that there’s a connection between the approach of the parents, particularly Leopold Godowsky, Sr., to music, and the approach of the boys to the science of film and film technology. That I think there’s a very strong connection in these things that in some ways was counter-intuitive, very much against the way other people were doing science, even against the way other people were doing music at the time which stressed the complexity and embraced the complexity of using all kinds of different approaches. And also, I think it belongs to a particular Jewish moment in time where Jews could be in classical music, popular music, jazz, science, industrial research, you know, all kinds of things which would not have been possible in an earlier time.
And then maybe the last thing I’ll say about that, when I first gave a presentation about the subject, one my colleagues from King’s College in London, who has a great name, John Deathridge, he’s a musicologist. And he said, in his typical, understated British way, at the end of my talk he says I couldn’t help but think that what you’re describing was Wagner’s worst nightmare.
Tortorice: That’s a great line. So Michael, talk a bit about George’s domestic arrangements in Madison. In some ways he lived almost like a graduate student in that he, he had a house of course, which he was very devoted to, but he wasn’t there all that often and he always had, I don’t know how many series of graduate students, usually couples lived in his first floor or probably more appropriately named, his basement. And basically were live-in servants and that they, you know, he came from a milieu were he always had servants as a child and perhaps not at Oxford and whatever, but they basically took care of his daily needs, did all of his cooking, all of the housekeeping, all of the house upkeep, all of that.
So tell me what you know about that and some of the individuals that you know.
Berkowitz: Sure. I, I will say a lot of my knowledge of this comes afterwards. That is, I know Jimmy Fisher quite well who lived with, lived in the house with George. And I think that the way they saw it was not so much being servants, of course, that meant that they were living there rent-free. But almost everybody described it as living with an uncle or a grandfather. It was like living with a relative that it was I mean, I don’t, know of no one who didn’t enjoy it and they found it endlessly amusing to be, to be living with him there. Yeah.
But I will say, when I was, when I started as a graduate student, there was a student of George’s who was finishing up, who, an utterly brilliant man, who was his TA for the cultural history class that I just sat in on. I mean, his name is Barry Fulks, and he wrote a Ph.D. about a filmmaker who went from being an avant-garde filmmaker in Weimar to being a major Nazi filmmaker. That is Walter Ruttmann (1887-1941), and Barry was, was an utterly brilliant guy, very concerned with sort of the theory of images and film along with, with that. And I think he was way, way, way ahead of his time. Utterly, utterly brilliant dissertation.
He taught for a couple of years, I think he taught at, at Alfred University in upstate New York, maybe somewhere else. But he spent most of his career I think teaching high school in, in Pittsburgh. But he has a wonderful man. I mean, he was great to me, a very generous soul. He was finishing up his PhD at the time, but I think he was one of the people who’d lived with George. Maybe he was living with George when I first, when I first came here, but I was also very close to Elizabeth Panzer, who was studying I think with Bill Courtenay doing medieval history, but she lived with George with her husband Mike, who was a medical doctor. Wonderful people. They’re both originally I think from Wisconsin. And I think Elizabethhas become a lawyer. She’s now a lawyer, I think in Appleton, Wisconsin. She does family law. Just terrific person. I shared an office with her as a TA and she’s, you should probably interview her as well about her life with, about her life living in with, living with George. So just a wonderful person.
I want to mention someone who didn’t, didn’t live in George’s house, but someone who was really part of that, part of that world.
And it actually connects to what I was saying about my undergraduate days at Hobart College. One of, one of the TAs I was very close to, you know, one of my fellow graduate students here, was someone who was a few years ahead of me. And I will say I learned so much from the students who were ahead of me. And a woman named Maureen Flynn (1955-2015). She studied with Stanley, Stanley Payne, and she wrote about the confraternities in, in Spain. I mean, really wonderful, mainly social and cultural historian and religious historian. She started out her career at, at the University of Georgia, then went to the University of Maryland. But for a number of reasons this did not work. She wound up spending most of her career at Hobart and William Smith, my Alma mater and had a very, very good experience there. Her husband was also a Wisconsin PhD, who teaches at one of the wonderful private high schools in Rochester. It is, her husband is Bill [William] Schara, but Maureen was absolutely wonderful, and I think that as she was going through the process of writing her PhD and I remember reading, reading how really clear and how well she set out her argument. I really learned a lot from her and from other people.
Um, one of my closest colleagues with Steve Kale, now, dear very close friend of mine, teaches at Washington State who studied with Ed Gargan. Also Fred “Bud” Burkhard (1956-2013) who’s now, sadly died way too early. Also a student of, also a student of Gargan’s, but I’d say Maureen really occupies sort of a special place. She died way too young. She died of cancer a few years ago, but I know that she considered her time in Madison to be very special and they had a very good relationship with Professor Payne. But I remember George and I would ride the elevator with her. When we when we would come up from class and I just wanted to make sure that that I mentioned her as well.
Tortorice: So tell me a bit about your own academic career. You were hired initially, was it at Ohio State, your first position?
Berkowitz: No, like so many people, because I was sort of running out of money and, you know, the way that the system worked here is you only at so many years were you supposed to be a TA, and I hadn’t quite finished, so my first job was at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, in upstate New York, and it also worked out because Laurie [Lawrence] Baron had been teaching there, and Laurie got the position at San Diego State from St. Lawrence. So I wound up sort of taking over for Laurie, even though not quite. It was a one-year position when I first took it. In a lot of ways, it was a great place to get a first job because I got a lot of great teaching experience, but wow, teaching a lot of courses.
I think I was teaching either three or four courses, a term, not having yet finished my PhD. Very isolated place in, in upstate New York, but I’m very, in a lot of ways very thankful for that position. It was, it was in a great many respects a good, a good start for me know, it was a known place. It’s a place, it is on the academic map. Not, you know, not say hopelessly obscure, but from there, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Judaism. It’s now called something else now called the University of American, the University of American Judaism, American Jewish University. Anyway, at the time, it was the West Coast branch of of Jewish Theological Seminary of America. And I was offered the chance of staying at St. Lawrence, you know, another year, even though I hadn’t yet finished the PhD.
But I had, when I think about it, I was really greatly fortunate. I had a choice. I had two, two offers of limited-term positions while I was at St. Lawrence, in addition to being able to stay there. For a number reasons, I was not, not all that keen on staying. But I had a job offer from Gratz College for a one-year position in Philadelphia, which is one of these colleges of Jewish Studies. And it was an interesting president of Gratz College at the time named Gary Schiff, and I’ve lost lost touch with him. I don’t know. I don’t really know what’s happened to him. I should just Google, look him up and see what see what’s happened to him. I haven’t heard of him in many years.
But then I had an offer for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Judaism. And I had a long talk with George about this. And he said, he thinks, he said, I think you should take the postdoctoral fellowship at Los Angeles. And one of the reasons for this is it wasn’t very much money, but they gave me housing. That is they were giving me an apartment. That was, was part of the terms of the fellowship actually on campus. So it was not much money, was $10,000 and, but but I didn’t have to worry about commuting and it was, you know, I didn’t know how nice it was.
And he said, I’ll never forget, he said Los Angeles didn’t used to be very interesting. He said, Now it’s very interesting. So there are great people at UCLA and USC and there is a very interesting intellectual life there. And he said, I think at this stage in your career, it would be a very good place for you to be.
And it was a two-year, two-year postdoctoral fellowship, he said it will give you a chance to, you know, to turn your dissertation into a book. And so I took it and was really taking a chance to go. I’d never had any experience with LA. I had visited just very, very briefly, actually, Steve Kale when he was doing an NEH seminar there, I think the summer before or a couple of years before. So it really was George’s encouragement that led me to take that postdoctoral fellowship. in Los Angeles, which turned out to be incredibly interesting. That is I met people there who were fabulous. One of the people I met when I was there with Steve Zipperstein, who was instrumental in introducing me to an editor at Cambridge University Press. They wound up publishing my first book, with Cambridge University Press, first two books with Cambridge, I would say it probably wouldn’t have been likely to have happened if not for Steve who I’m very, very grateful for. He was a great colleague when I was in, when I was in Los Angeles.
Elliot Dorff, who does something very different. He basically does Jewish ethics. He was one of the people who hired me, Steve Lowenstein at the UJ, fabulous colleague, great historian of German Jewry. There were other people in Los Angeles at the time. Actually David Myers was there.
Tortorice: Was David Sabean already at UCLA?
Berkowitz: No. I think I’m not sure if he was there. He went for a while from UCLA to Cornell. So I can’t remember exactly the, the, the, the timing, the timing of that. So that turned out very, very well. Even I only stayed for a year. I met the woman I would eventually marry. When I was in Los Angeles, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. But from there I took what was a one-year position at or a visiting assistant position at Ohio State, which was thought to possibly turn into a tenure-track position. And I got the one-year position, then the tenure track position at Ohio State. But I wound up being turned down for tenure at Ohio State, which was quite controversial. And I think this is this is probably the part that I will leave for the long-term future.
I really wasn’t sure what to do because there was a chance that I could have stayed at Chicago on soft money and London was and is very expensive. And it would be, you know, I had small children and I really wasn’t sure even though the university was obviously a good university, is part of the University of London, University College London. This is the time where George really yelled at me more than he ever yelled at me before. There were times he raised his voice for different things like times he yelled at me for going to restaurants that he thought had dirty kitchens and, you know, there were there were times he was not all that happy with me, which was a lot a lot of it was in good fun.
But the time where he really yelled at me was when I had the offer from University College for a Readership, which is sort of an associate professorship something like an associate professorship or a beginning professorship. And I said, I’m not sure if I’m going to take it because London is so expensive and I don’t know, you know, about moving my whole family and whatever else. And he said you do not realize the significance of the place and the position. He said, this is one of the world’s great universities. He said that (Robert) Wistrich (1945-2015) had had this position and really, not really done with it what he should have.
And, and he said, this is, he said what goes along with this position can’t really be described. That is, you will have connections to places and people, and he said it’s one of the best positions in Jewish history in the world.
And he said for you to turn this down or even think about turning it down would be absurd.
Tortorice: Well, and the history of that institution.
Berkowitz: Yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s really so so I will say that that it was one of the times where I did, although I will say generally speaking, I listened to him and tried to take his advice, but it was a very difficult thing to do, that is the being denied tenure had left us in very desperate financial straits. Like I said, I had small children. It was, it was really a diff, a very, very difficult time.
But we made this sort of radical move of uprooting ourselves completely and moving to London, and we are so happy that we’ve done it. That is, it turned out to be a fabulous career move for me. The university is great. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the world’s great universities. My department is fabulous.
Tortorice: The middle of London.
Berkowitz: The middle of London. I mean, there are so many incredible things about it that most universities take for granted that I’ve had in a lot of ways, the best of worlds, although we don’t have the kind of fellowships to offer PhD students that say is available at Columbia, or Chicago, or Stanford.
Tortorice: Send them here!
Berkowitz: But we have-
Tortorice: Mosse fellows!
Berkowitz: Well, but overall it’s been really a wonderful place for me to be and I think it was a great, it turned out to be very good for my wife and it was a great place for my children to grow up.
Tortorice: And your wife is a physician?
Berkowitz: No, my wife works in public health, she has an MS in public health, and she’s had generally very, very good career in a very good career in London, although we’re not like normal Americans with a big house and two cars and we, we’ve lived more like students in that way.
Tortorice: So then you engaged with, with Jewish studies in Britain as it developed. I mean, University College London, of course, has a long Jewish association.
Tortorice: So you had that behind you and and then I would assume there was resistance, but a kind of blossoming of the field, and in the face of probably conservative academic culture, probably antisemitism. We won’t go into the case of George’s cousin Werner versus George. I meant one went to England, went to the university. I mean to America and the University of Wisconsin and their careers were and their personalities and their lives took very different directions.
Tortorice: But so the cultures are very different. I remember George’s childhood friend Paula Quark told me that the British never really accepted Jews or outsiders. That she felt that there was this kind of inborn sense of superiority amongst, insularity amongst the British. So did you experience any of this?
Berkowitz: Well I think, I think, I think this, I think this I think this changed over time. And also I was in a very unique situation. That is University College London was founded as sort of the anti-Oxbridge. You know, it was the first place. where Jews and Catholics could go to get degrees. It was, it was founded specifically without having a Theology Department or focus. So in that way it was sort of very friendly. And the other way is University College has an ethos, and generally speaking, a tradition which is probably closer to Madison than almost any other university. That is, it was founded in order to be sort of in public service, in serving the London community, the Greater British, even world community, and of being a very open place. And part of it is that its spiritual father was Jeremy Bentham, utilitarian philosopher. You know, the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number,
Tortorice: I remember when you rolled out his pickled or his preserved corpse.
Tortorice: And I was so shocked by that.
Berkowitz: Well so, I think that in some ways UCL is more like Madison, which George knew, that I think he had a sense that there was something about it that was going to be very agreeable to me and I was being an idiot for not really seeing how wonderful it was.
Tortorice: He spent a lot of time from the 1950s onward in London. Many, many colleagues there, [Francis Ludwig] Carsten (1911-1998), all those people. He wrote that book on Europe in the 16th century with his colleague there [Helmut Koenigsberger, 1918-2014]. And of course he knew that university very well.
Berkowitz: Yeah, and Roy Porter (1946-2002), yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He was just a fabulous historian of medicine and did urbanism, who also died way too young. And it was really, really a terrible…
Tortorice: Riding his bicycle. I met him right before that and he had expressed a huge admiration for George.
Berkowitz: Yeah. So so yeah. Oh, yeah. He was way, way, way too young. So so I’m just so glad that in the best George kick my ass we say in America, really kicked my ass and said wake up, this is a great position. This is a great opportunity that you shouldn’t be thinking about, you know, the more material side or whatever else or it would be a gamble to try to stay in Chicago, you’d never know what would open and he said go. He said go and see how it goes. But he said, I think that you’ll find it to be a place that is that is agreeable. And I would say, I think I’ve had a very good experience there teaching, research. In 2007, to my, to my surprise, I was asked to be the president of the British Association of Jewish Studies
Tortorice: Oh, congratulations!
Berkowitz: which I think if you had, if you had asked me 10 or 12 years before, are you going to be the president of a major Jewish Studies organization, I would have said, You’ve gotta be out of your mind.
Tortorice: So I’m going to ask one last question for this interview, and then-
Tortorice: perhaps we can just do an audio one
Berkowitz: Sure, sure, sure.
Tortorice: in the Mosse office to follow up.
Berkowitz: Oh, sure.
Tortorice: But the one question that I thought would be good to get on videotape is, do you think George, his approach to teaching, his research interests, his provocative nature, would flourish in the current academic atmosphere? History as a field has changed so tremendously, but also the academic environment and the relationship between professors and students has changed so dramatically. So do you think he would, I mean, I assume he would have come out of a different environment if he was living now obviously, but let’s just take him from to say the 1970s and plop him here. Do you think it would work?
Berkowitz: Well, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. It’s a yes, yes, yes, and no. That is I think that it would be very easy for him to be more open about his own life and say sexuality than it was, even though he certainly dropped hints at times. And I’ll I’ll even mention one of those. But I will say that the kind of influence that he had on students that he would have figured out a way to do it. I think that he would just such a great teacher, just such a live, a live mind that when we think about something like Andy Bachman, who’s become one of the, as, as George would say, one of the leaders of the Jewish people. It means really one of the great Jewish leaders of our time.
Tortorice: Of his generation.
Berkowitz: I mean really, he’s, and he’s made, he’s made a, he, he’s he’s also, he’s fed thousands of people in his life. I mean, this is, you know, he’s made a huge difference in intellectual, cultural, and even, even terms of people being able to exist who wouldn’t have been able to exist without him, say the kind of work he’s done with soup kitchens and things with social justice, hugely influential. And say, Andrew Patner (1959-2015) or who was arguably one of the greatest music journalists and sort of cultural figures in, in Chicago for so many years. And when I think of these kind of, when I think of these kind of people yet, and even other people who were active in their own communities like Beth Seldin, who became one of the great figures of Omaha, Nebraska. I mean, there were, there were these really, really wonderful, really wonderful people and he did, he did connect, connect them, but I’d say that now. I mean, who knows? I mean, as something that I say when I go to visit universities, I say Look, my presence there is a trigger warning. You just, I have to warn people that I will say things that will upset people or I won’t use the right terminology with certain things.
Tortorice: He was so provocative, and that was how he taught.
Berkowitz: Yeah, but just to give you one example in one lecture on when he was lecturing on Marx, which is just unbelievable lectures to go back to some of the greatest analysis of Marx. And he said, and Marx says that the only time where man is truly free in modern society is in eating, drinking, and fornicating. He said eating, I have to watch what I eat now I have diabetes, I get I can’t, I’m not supposed to eat sugar and salt. It’s okay. I I do with these. Drinking, I’ve never been I’ve never been that much of a drinker. I know you people and your beer or whatever you could do. Fornicating, that’s none of your business. Everybody just erupts in laughter. That’s another year.